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One of the earliest preachers of universal salvation in America, Rich was born in Sutton, Massachusetts on August 12, 1750 of Congregationalist parents. His father became a Baptist in 1768, and this stimulated Caleb’s religious interests. Rich came from a poor background, and received virtually no formal education. He moved to the mostly forested town of Warwick, Massachusetts with two of his brothers in 1771 to clear land for a farm, and he became a member of the Baptist church there. Then he had two visions where a spirit guide came to him. In the second he visited Mount Zion, where he became convinced he was following an outpouring of God’s spirit. He became a believer in universal salvation. When the Baptists heard about these ecstatic experiences, they called Rich a heretic, and excluded him from their congregation. Losing members to Universalist conversions was a great threat to the Baptists. Samuel Bigelow of nearby New Salem said that universal salvation was “completely calculated to suit the carnal mind.” Rich’s exclusion led him to found his own “New Religious Society” in 1773 in Warwick. This was the first Universalist church organized in America, but it had no legal standing, and so Murray’s church in Gloucester has usually been considered the first.
Rich’s principal area of itinerant preaching and evangelism was in north central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire but by 1776 he also had groups of Universalists in his home town of Sutton, Douglas, and in Oxford, Massachusetts, where the first Universalist convention was held in 1785. A “General Society” was formed in and around Richmond, New Hampshire in 1777. Rich joined the Continental Army in 1778, and marched to Cambridge, but decided that he could not be a soldier. He found a substitute and returned to Warwick. He was also married that year after converting the entire family of his fiance to Universalism. Rich also had more charismatic episodes in 1778. An angel came to visit and told him that all the children of Adam would pass from “death unto life.” His ultra Universalism that all would be immediately saved upon death was adopted by his future disciple Hosea Ballou.
Rich was ordained in 1781 to a regional ministry of three congregations in Warwick, Richmond and Jaffrey, New Hampshire. The service was held in Richmond in a large town wide event with 300 people in attendance. He insisted that these congregations maintain separate organizations, and they had complete liturgical freedom so that baptism and communion were not considered necessary for full membership. Rich succeeded in splitting the Baptist congregation in Richmond, converted several Ballou cousins and Hosea’s brother David, and this may have played a significant role in Ballou’s own conversion in 1790. He had a profound influence on Hosea’s ideas, and also introduced Ballou to his future wife, Ruth Washburn. Rich also converted Thomas Barnes, a future Universalist preacher, when Barnes became convinced that he could not set bounds to God’s love. Rich’s congregations sent delegates to the Universalist convention in Oxford in 1785, and Rich also attended, but theological differences between Rich and John Murray, whom Rich once visited in Boston, prevented much progress in unifying the Universalists. The rural Universalists under Rich’s leadership always refused to follow any plan of uniform church order, as they preferred to be ruled by “gospel liberty.” Rich moved to New Haven, Vermont in 1803 where he was reordained for legal reasons, and continued to preach in a variety of places, including Shoreham, Vermont and Hoosick, New York. He died in New Haven in October 1821, an itinerant preacher until the end. Stephen Marini has called Rich, “the most important native New England Universalist leader.”
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